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To row or oar, that is the question

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream! This song has been around a long time, maybe too long, dating back to at least the 1800s.

Rowing is a way to move a boat, like a row boat or raft, using long paddles called oars. The oars are held to the side of the boat by oarlocks.

Rowing has been around even longer than the children’s song, dating back maybe 6,500 to 7,000 years or more. On really big ships in the olden days it may have taken more than one person to help lift and push the oar to move the boat forward.

On a raft or rowboat, just one person holds two oars to move and steer the boat. It takes a while to get used to rowing. On a river, a rower will often point the boat toward what they want to stay away from and row back to move the boat away from that object. Rowing back is easier than rowing forward.

Paddling is very different. Usually two people paddle a canoe and one paddles a kayak, but you can also paddle a raft. Maybe you’ve seen a bunch of people, each with a paddle, in a raft. Each person helps move the raft forward by pushing their paddle through the water. Get enough people in a boat and you can paddle pretty fast.

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In a paddle raft the person in the back steers and often calls out orders to people on either side of the boat. Things like “Paddle on the left!” and everyone on the left paddles. By telling who to paddle, how and when to paddle, the captain can guide the boat downstream. Unlike rowing, the captain can use the greater power of his paddlers to point the boat away from something he wants to avoid and tell them all to paddle forward.

Paddles and oars were originally, and still are, made out of wood. Now they are also made out of plastics, aluminum and man-made fibers like Kevlar.

Without oars, you couldn’t row your boat, but you could paddle it. Paddle, paddle, paddle your boat doesn’t make for a very good song, though.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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